Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Outside, the bathhouse was clean and bright…”

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(Note: This post is the fourteenth installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 13. You can read the earlier installments here.)

By now, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I don’t like backstory. This isn’t a philosophical objection, but a practical one: I’ve found that there’s a certain category of characters, in both fiction and film, who are simply more effective the less you know about their background. This is emphatically true of Forsyth’s Jackal, for instance, and it used to be true of Hannibal Lecter before Thomas Harris decided to destroy him in his last two novels. And it’s true of my own Ilya Severin, who resembles Lecter and the Jackal only in that he’s a character who works best when the reader is allowed to fill in the blanks. Of course, you can’t do without some backstory—but a little goes a long way. Chapter 13, in which we learn a bit about Ilya’s background, the death of his parents, and his relationship with his mentor Vasylenko, is a crucial chapter, then, and not just for The Icon Thief: I didn’t realize it at the time, but the conflicts I establish here won’t be fully resolved for another two novels.

This chapter also receives particular emphasis from its place in the novel’s structure. Until now, the novel has alternated chapters between Maddy, my lead character, and the secondary protagonists, a structural device that I imposed late in the game in order to give more emphasis to Maddy’s story. Chapter 13 is the first time I break this pattern—normally the reader would expect a Maddy chapter here—and although I didn’t plan it deliberately, I think this works to subconsciously underline the scene’s importance. A novel’s structure can convey messages below the reader’s normal level of awareness, and here, it tells us to pay attention: Maddy’s narrative isn’t the only one we need to be following. (Needless to say, I was only able to violate the established pattern because Maddy had already been established as the novel’s primary character and had been given some interesting objectives. If I’d disrupted the structure earlier in the book, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.)

Not surprisingly, this was a hard chapter to write. I haven’t really kept track, but I have a feeling this may be the most frequently reworked chapter in the entire novel, at least when it came to the many small structural changes that were required to fit it smoothly into the surrounding narrative. Earlier versions tended to bring the novel’s momentum to a temporary halt, so I did what I could to minimize the interruption, cutting the chapter as much as possible and lopping off most of the first page, as First Blood author David Morrell helpfully recommends. I also rearranged the material a bit: the original draft opened with several paragraphs of description of the banya, or bathhouse, where the action takes place, before launching into the scene itself. By opening with a line of dialogue instead and saving the full description for later—the novelistic equivalent of starting with a closeup before cutting to a wide shot—the first page reads much more smoothly. It’s a tiny fix, but so effective that I often do the same thing now whenever I need to introduce a new location.

If I indulge myself a little more than usual in setting the stage here, it’s because this chapter is based on one of my more memorable excursions as a writer, when I spent a day at a Russian bathhouse in Sheepshead Bay. I’m part Finnish, so I’ve always been fond of saunas, but outside of certain memorable movies, I didn’t know much about the Russian version. The resulting field trip gave me more material than I could possibly use, but many of the details in the ensuing chapter—like the birch leaves floating on the surface of the pool after someone dives in after flogging himself with the venik—come directly from that excursion. And my day at the bathhouse was a reminder of why I’d wanted to become a novelist in the first place: it’s a license to explore parts of the world that I otherwise never would have seen, even in my own back yard. Later expeditions would take me to London, Brussels, and beyond, but in some ways, this is the one I remember most fondly…and it only took half an hour on the N train.

Written by nevalalee

August 8, 2012 at 10:02 am

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